The Toyota Prius: An Elegant Solution

Toyota PriusFor most of automotive history, the main impediments to the electric car have been battery technology (limited range) and cheap oil.  The energy crises of the 1970s awakened interest in alternative propulsion, but range and utility remained elusive goals. The family car was expected to go 300 miles or more without refueling, and to carry at least four people.

To reduce “range anxiety” (the fear of being stranded far from home with a dead battery), the hybrid concept gained favor.  This usually involved a small gasoline engine and a generator, to recharge on the road.  At first, the idea seemed inefficient and overly complicated―two systems instead of one—and perhaps too expensive.  Other attempts at electric propulsion, like the battery-electric General Motors EV-1 were minimalistic and limited to two passengers.

The word “elegant” is a term of respect used by engineers to describe a design that is no more complicated than it need be to perform its intended function.  A variation on the axiom “simpler is better,” it aptly describes the Prius.

Rather than adding on a completely separate power source to charge the batteries, Toyota annexed an electric motor to a 1,500 cc four-cylinder gasoline engine.  Employing a continuously-variable transmission to let the engine operate at maximum efficiency, the car could also run on electric propulsion entirely, with the engine shut off.  Batteries are nickel metal hydride, an advanced technology not quite as powerful as lithium but without the hazards inherent in large lithium cells.  To integrate all these disparate elements an advanced electronic control and management system was developed; “drive by wire” it is sometimes called, and also included regenerative braking.  Weight of 2,750 pounds was less than that of the EV-1, and the Prius carried two additional passengers.

Introduced in Japan in 1997, the Prius entered the European, United States and Canadian markets in 2000.  At about $20,000 in the U.S., it was much more expensive than a Corolla, but equivalent to a mid-range Camry and affordable for its target customer. Styling was distinctive, for instant consumer recognition, yet not radical or startling like some alternative concepts.

By 2010 annual worldwide sales had risen above 500,000.  Having changed the world, however, the Prius now had to live in it.  Variations on the Prius concept had been adopted by other automakers, including Ford and General Motors, so hybrid buyers had more choices.

Prius sales remain strong, in the 200,000 to 300,000 range, and customer loyalty is high. Many customers are now on their second or third Prius.  Replacement is seldom due hybrid-specific maladies, but simply items that wear and fail on all cars—heating and air conditioning, for example—or non-related causes like accidents.  Batteries have proven not to be a reliability factor; original packs last ten years or more. The current model is the fourth generation.

About the Author
Kit Foster has had an insatiable curiosity about automobiles since birth. He has written for enthusiast magazines for 35 years, in the United States and in Europe. His book, The Stanley Steamer, America’s Legendary Steam Car, received awards from the Antique Automobile Club of America and the Society of Automotive Historians. A long-time member of both organizations, he was named a Friend of Automotive History by SAH, from which he also received the Carl Benz Award for periodical articles. He lives in Gales Ferry, Connecticut.

About the Series
This series of essays explores the vehicles that made up our Ten Cars that Changed the World exhibition.  The exhibition was a partnership with the Society of Automotive Historians

Image courtesy of Visit South Bend.